Project Description

Last Names | Julie Landsman

Years and winter years ago,
I taught a 9th grade boy
with the last name of Sam. He smiled whenever
he came into my class, twenty minutes late.
On the chart that showed days present,
His empty squares glared at me. Gone where? This
fine child I missed so much? Some years, you delight
In the way a certain student strings word and image
together into magenta buffalo walking,
into green benches all the way to California,
into pink raindrops on silver sky. This was the boy
with the last name of Sam.

The next year I saw him
leaning against the warm wall of the high school
as he stood laughing with friends,
smoking between classes, catching some rays,
maybe going to class, maybe not.

This winter, a man with the last name of Sam
Burned in his tent, human spiral of flame
Into bitter air. Someone went to the funeral
in suit and tie, someone wrote an editorial.

I found myself grieving this man,
his life under bridges, kerosene out of control,
temperature below zero.

Such sorrow because his last name
Was Sam? Such outrage because I knew him
when he was writing poems about motorcycles and wind?

I hope I grieve him more for his unnecessary
passing. And too, grieve for us who let him
go. We are losing our children, our old men,
our young women in their Wal-Mart smocks
Who search for a place each evening. We are losing
our instinct for great kindness.

We are losing men named Sam
Who wrote fine poems about rivers and muskrats
And the lonely blue heron who sang love songs
Near the lake he visited as a boy.

A Teacher Mourns | Julie Landsman

Light falls across a room,
a glass bird on a shelf
catches sunshine in early evening,
breakfast smells come up the same old stairs—
these form the seasons of a home.
A girl finds refuge in dependable light after a tough day
on the playground, or after getting off the bus
on the corner of Lake Street and 14th when the boy
with the red shirt teases her about her skinny legs.

Yet in my classroom kids breathe in quick-step,
stutter into my classroom arm and arm with anxiety.
Ten-year-old Lee, whose mother works the night shift,
arrives in the same impeccable blouse
and jeans each day. She has delivered her baby brother
to the neighbor’s house, carrying Justin on one thin hip
from the Shelter to the old woman with too many cats.

I create order out of chaos for the few hours
I have them with me, the few months they live in
my neighborhood.
If I can touch their shoulder, nudge them awake as they
drift off some afternoons, after a night
trudging to a new bed, clothes in a pillow case
bumping against their knees, wanting only somewhere
soft, I can give them a season. Perhaps the slant of
sun beams changing from March to April can hold them.
Sadie comes early, bustles to help me assemble
crayons, paper, scissors, while Troy
dances through the doorway 8th week in a row
still home, still here. We silently bless consecutive days, turn
toward the board and begin our work:
how to tell time
how to predict weather,
how to measure rainfall.

I hold my breath until they are before me each morning:
homeless, drifting kids;
city nomads.
I relax when they appear in front of me,
for at least one more
day of snow against my window.

I sleep easy until Sadie disappears.

Somewhere she claims one corner
of one room for
her consistent stuffed dog,
her red diary book.

I lose hope when
Troy does not twirl through the door,
on a Monday after vacation. My classroom is bereft of his song.
I picture him, over on the north side of the city, trying
to get used to the way the season changes
from a windowless schoolroom, bending over a book
in harsh fluorescent, a new teacher laying her hand
gently on his shoulder, asking him his name.